May faces new Brexit resistance in Northern Ireland

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Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Matt Dunham

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s renewed pledge to deliver Brexit without dividing the UK was met with contradictory ultimatums Friday from Northern Ireland’s unionist and nationalist parties.

May returned from a bruising EU summit in Salzburg to deliver an impassioned televised address in which she blamed Brussels for the impasse and demanded “respect” for the UK.

The embattled prime minister said EU negotiators were offering a deal that would keep the North “effectively” in the EU customs union and separate it from Britain.

“It is something I will never agree to — indeed, in my judgement it is something no British prime minister would ever agree to,” she said.

May is in a difficult negotiating position because her slender majority in parliament relies on the support of Northern Ireland’s pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party.

DUP leader Arlene Foster vowed on Friday to veto any deal that sets up a regulatory trade barrier between her region and the rest of the UK.

“Any new regulatory barrier would be a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly, where the DUP would veto any attempt to undermine the economic or constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom,” she said in a statement,” she said in a statement.

“Our red line from day one of these negotiations has been that there can be no border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.”

But Sinn Fein — the party favouring Irish unification — said it would fight any Brexit divorce deal that does not include the “backstop” proposed by the EU.

A “backstop” would ensure the boundary between the North and the Republic is free of a hard border by keeping Northern Ireland effectively in the EU.

This would honour the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that ended a period of conflict in the region by devolving power and giving legitimacy to both unionist and nationalists views.

The EU proposal would keep the North separate from the rest of the UK for a transition period during which more customs mechanisms could be defined.

“There can be no withdrawal agreement without a backstop for the North,” said Sinn Fein’s Brexit spokesman David Cullinane.

“This is a red line issue and one that cannot be allowed to become a bargaining chip in the weeks and months ahead.”

May hinted in her speech that “regulatory barriers” may be introduced between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK if “the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree”.

But the Northern Irish Assembly at Stormont — the executive body May referred to –dissolved in January 2017 after a power sharing accord between the DUP and Sinn Fein fell apart.